Tony Baxter, Senior VP Creative Development for Walt Disney Imagineering, recently chatted with the ForceCast, one of the more respected Star Wars fan podcasts, about Star Tours. They discussed the new version a bit, but Baxter was really excited to explore some of the history of the original Star Tours attraction, including tidbits I’ve never heard before.
You can listen to it here, or I’ve included some of my notes below the jump:
The podcast interview starts off with Tony explaining how he was involved in the original Star Tours going back to how they got the original attraction off the ground starting from pretty much nothing. The Fantasyland remake at Disneyland had just opened and Imagineers were looking for movie projects to bring to the parks, the only problem was that Disney itself wasn’t producing exactly great content at the time. So they went to look for other producers who were similar to the Disney ethic, even if they were at other studios.
Tony approached Marty Sklar, who ran WDI at the time, who said “That’s a scary idea, why don’t you talk to Disney President Ron Miller.” When Tony did meet with Miller, they discussed Tron and The Black Hole, but finally Miller said, why don’t we try to meet with George Lucas. Miller knew George because of their mutual love of wine (The Disney-Miller family owned the Silverado Vineyards).
So one day they flew up to the Silverado Vineyards and had lunch with Diane Disney Miller as the host. They presented George Lucas the idea of bringing Star Wars to Disneyland. Lucas said he wanted to do a park himself, but he wasn’t able to afford it at the time. So his second choice would be to have something at Disneyland. Lucas was a Disneyland geek having had a lot of memorable experiences in the park growing up.
About six months later Ron Miller was forced out from the top of The Walt Disney Company and Michael Eisner and Frank Wells came in. Tony Baxter and WDI had entered the world of Star Wars with enthusiasm and created a plan for a roller coaster where you started on Dagobah with a special effect where the room floor would secretly drop and you would feel like your vehicle was being levitated by Yoda before it ‘launched’ down the track. The coaster ended with an interactive ending where guests could choose their own ending by destroying the Deathstar by going through the exciting trench bombing run scene from Star Wars or entering the core of the Deathstar as from Return of the Jedi.*
The big problem was how to fit it all in a building. Enter Randy Bright, who made a great impact on EPCOT as part of WDI. Bright had just seen a motion simulator and invited Baxter and his team to check out the technology. It was a cheesy roller coaster simulation, but they could see the potential. That was the turning point.
What is interesting is that the ‘choose your own adventure’ aspect we see in Star Tours 3D was part of the plan from the very beginning.
Tony looked up the exact date of the pitch to Michael Eisner. It was Saturday Sept 29, 1984 and Breck Eisner, Michael’s 14 year old son, was in the room for the pitch. Michael came from the movies and didn’t trust his own opinion when it came to theme parks. He chose instead to trust his son’s instinct. At that point Baxter’s future essentially rested on the opinion of a 14 year old, who thankfully loved the idea.
After that Baxter and his team got back together with George Lucas and the project went ahead full speed as a motion simulator. Lucas contributed the original storyline of the Starspeeder ‘going the wrong way’ because he loved to see the backstage areas when he toured Disneyland. Another important idea from Lucas was he thought having a crazy pilot that had never been in space before would be more liberating for storytelling and special effects. George Lucas also ended up being the deciding vote on the Star Tours name over Eisner’s idea of Star Ride! I haven’t said this in a long time, but thank the maker for George.
Baxter also talked about the original intent to replace the 70mm print that was carried on each Star Tours cabin with a new adventure every now and then. That was the idea. However, the nature of the print and projector made it too difficult to switch with any frequency. Instead they decide to push the technology as far as it could go to make the story the best it could be.
There’s lots more in the interview that you don’t want to miss.
*Oddly enough a ‘patented’ Roller Coaster that would do something similar was recently unearthed by some online detectives. Even though the first poster says it is a WDI design, it’s actually patented by someone not related to George Lucas or Disney